Jason Kenney to hold elections for Alberta Senate seats

After the Senate last night passed the Liberal government's controversial overhaul of the environmental assessment regime and the oil tanker ban bill, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said today he will hold elections to pick candidates for Alberta's seats in the upper house.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney holds a press conference in Edmonton. (Amber Bracken/Canadian Press)

After the Senate last night passed the Liberal government's controversial overhaul of the environmental assessment regime and the oil tanker ban bill, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said today he will hold elections to pick candidates for Alberta's seats in the upper house to better represent the province in Ottawa.

Kenney said his government will soon introduce legislation to give Albertans a say on who represents them in the Senate, and those elections will be held concurrently with the municipal votes in October 2021.

He said elections would make senators more accountable to the people in the province they represent. He pointed out that the senators who were "elected" in past Alberta Senate contests — Doug Black and Scott Tannas — voted against both Bill C-69 and Bill C-48, legislation Kenney has described collectively as an all-out assault on the province's oil and gas economy.

Kenney said the Liberal government's environmental agenda is fanning the flames of separatism among Albertans. He also threatened Friday to launch legal action against the legislation on constitutional grounds.

"Last night's votes clearly demonstrated that elected senators, who have a direct line of accountability to Alberta voters, are much more likely to vote to defend our vital strategic and economic interests," Kenney said. "How strange it is that we had senators from Ontario and Quebec voting more clearly for Alberta's interest on this than Alberta senators."

'A prejudicial attack on this province'

Kenney thanked five of the six Alberta senators for voting against C-48, the tanker ban bill, and called out non-affiliated Alberta Sen. Grant Mitchell, the government's whip or 'liaison' in the Senate, for voting for a bill "that he must know is a prejudicial attack on this province."

Bill C-48 would ban tankers capable of carrying more than 12,500 metric tons of oil from an area that stretches from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the Alaska border.

After the government accepted 99 of the 188 Senate amendments to C-69 — which overhauls the environmental assessment process for major projects — Mitchell, Sen. Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Sen. Paula Simons voted to pass that bill into law.

Alberta's Senate elections would be non-binding. It's the prime minister's prerogative to appoint senators and a PM can ignore the results of any such election — as Prime Minister Paul Martin did when making his Senate picks from the province.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Black and Tannas after they won the Senate contest in that province. Appointments to the upper house are made by the Governor General of Canada on the advice of the prime minister.

Putting the PM on the spot

"We can't compel a prime minister to appoint our preferred candidate to the Senate, but we can certainly submit a list of people who have been chosen by Alberta voters and then basically challenge a prime minister to ignore democracy," Kenney said. "And that might happen, but at least we would have a list of people ready to roll for a government that's committed to Senate democracy."

It might be some time between Alberta's consultative election and an actual appointment. The next scheduled retirement for an Alberta seat in the Senate is March 7, 2021 when Sen. Elaine McCoy turns 75 — a vacancy that will arrive before Albertans have had their say in an election. That retirement will be followed by Mitchell's in July 2026 and Black's in August 2027.

Between 1989 and 2012, Alberta held a series of Senate nominee elections — the only province to run such elections for seats in the unelected body. Those elections resulted in 10 nominees; five of them — Black, Tannas, Bert Brown, Betty Unger and Stan Waters — were actually appointed to the Red Chamber.

Kenney said the legislation that allows for these elections expired in 2016 and he will introduce a new, "modernized" process ahead of the 2021 vote.

Following the Senate expenses scandal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau removed Liberal senators from the national caucus and promised to rely on an independent, non-partisan advisory board to help him make his Senate picks. The prime minister has since appointed dozens of senators through that process; all of them sit as either independent or non-affiliated senators, outside of the party caucuses.

A spokesperson for Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said the Trudeau government developed an "open, merit-based, and ... transparent" process to appoint senators because "Canadians were fed up after 10 years of hyper-partisanship under the Harper Conservatives."

"While some may wish to go back to a partisan Senate process, we know our independent appointments process is working," said Amy Butcher.

The former Conservative government asked the Supreme Court of Canada to weigh in on the constitutionality of possible Senate reforms.

The court said the implementation of national consultative elections and senatorial term limits would require the consent of the Senate, the House of Commons and the legislative assemblies of at least seven provinces representing half of the population of all the provinces.

"Introducing a process of consultative elections for the nomination of Senators would change our Constitution's architecture, by endowing Senators with a popular mandate which is inconsistent with the Senate's fundamental nature and role as a complementary legislative chamber of sober second thought," the court said of the possibility of national contests.

The abolition of the Senate would require the unanimous consent of the Senate, the House of Commons and the legislative assemblies of all Canadian provinces.

There is nothing that explicitly prevents provinces from holding such non-binding elections.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.